As a child, my parents taught me to pay attention to food labels and ingredients and I learned early to seek natural foods. It seemed pretty simple then, but new technologies and economics have dramatically changed the foods industry. It is much more difficult to select good foods than in the past, and there are many more factors that affect my decisions.

I still spend a lot of time reading labels and have noticed that manufacturers have steadily increased the quantity of claims and certifications on their packaging. I see several logos and emblems that attempt to address my interests and assure me the food is aligned with my values. This abundance of information can be very useful or very deceiving, ultimately leaving me challenged to prioritize it according to my personal beliefs and goals. This article is an exercise in understanding and defining the many labels and certifications we consumers encounter when we shop for food.

In the past, the word, “natural,” has been used by manufacturers to indicate they use no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives in their products. The strong growth of interest in natural foods has led to many more products claiming to be natural even while including very questionable ingredients. There is no official definition of the word and few laws restricting its use. Several manufacturers have been caught using the word on the front label despite including ingredients made with biotechnology or industrial processes that are anything but natural. A product can include genetically engineered foods, solvent-extracted oils, and laboratory-made sweeteners and still include the word ‘natural’ on the label. This deception is so harmful to the natural foods community that reputable manufacturers have had to create new certifications and labeling to demonstrate the integrity of their products.

Of all the product labels, organic certification is one of the strongest assurances of product integrity. A federally regulated standard, organic certification means the product ingredients are grown and handled in accordance with the National Organic Program. Third party organizations, like Oregon Tilth, certify that these standards are being met and upheld. Organic farmers and product manufacturers have an economic incentive to participate and to maintain these high standards, so consumers can trust organic products’ integrity. The organic standard prohibits the use of artificial ingredients, biotechnology, and growth hormones. Organic certification also requires a farm plan that addresses sustainable growing practices, and natural pest remediation. There are some concerns that the popularity and growth of organic agriculture has lead to some industrial-scale farms, but the organic label is still the strongest assurance of natural food quality. LifeSource strongly supports organic production and we feature many thousands of organic products throughout the store.

Beyond organic certification, there is another level of sustainable agriculture. Biodynamic agriculture emphasizes the interdependent relationships of plants, animals and soil, as an integrated system. Though subject to some criticism as pseudoscience, use of biodynamic principles in farming nurtures holistic understanding of the many biological factors necessary for sustainable farms, and addresses the criticisms levied against monocrop industrial agriculture systems. Biodynamic agriculture extends the principle ideals of organic farming to include a holistic approach to sustainability, especially through emphasis on soil health and interrelated organisms such as earthworms and beneficial bacteria. LifeSource carries Frey Vineyards wine made from biodynamically grown grapes.

Some labels and certifications deal with allergens or things people must avoid in their diets. For example, LifeSource carries a large selection of products labeled, “glutenfree.” People with Celiac disease must avoid proteins called “glutens” which cause severe inflammation and damage to their digestive systems. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed rules for labeling gluten-free foods, but currently, manufacturers can make claims about the gluten content of their foods or ingredients without any testing. To be certain about gluten content, manufacturers can have their products tested using R5 Eslia. This is a scientific test performed on a sample of the product in a laboratory. Manufacturers like Bob’s Red Mill test their gluten free products both before and after packaging to assure they contain no gluten. The non-profit Gluten Intolerance Group offers an independent certification for gluten-free foods. Certified foods can carry their Gluten- Free Certified logo for easy recognition.

Advances in biotechnology have created a concern about the use of genetically engineered foods. Known also as Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, biotechnology-derived ingredients don’t have a record of safe use. This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. We can’t foresee the future impact of this technology, but caution is prudent. Food products that meet the Non-GMO Project standards can be certified by third party organizations as being Non- GMO Project Verified.

In a global marketplace, the socioeconomic concerns of labor, poverty and exploitation come to the forefront. Especially with commodities like coffee, tea, cocoa and bananas, our buying decisions impact people’s lives directly. The concept of “Fair Trade” is that we ensure products come from people who benefit appropriately from their sale. Originally the fair trade certification ensured farmer cooperatives in developing countries received equitable profit from their production efforts. There is growing interest in, and development of, regional and global fair trade initiatives. Consequently there are a diverse variety of certifications related to these socioeconomic factors. Some examples of these certifications include Trans-Fair/Fair Trade USA, Ecocert, IMO/Fair for Life, and the World Fair Trade Organization.

Concern for the environment and sustainability is a trait shared by many of us as we recognize the importance of a healthy ecosystem to our lives and prosperity. Sometimes, in order to meet market demands, growers use environmentally destructive practices to grow many commodity crops. We can avoid supporting this by looking for sustainability certifications. Groups such as Rainforest Alliance, Food Alliance and Ecocert offer certifications for ingredients and crops grown sustainably.

A growing interest in eating locally grown foods has led LifeSource to display our own, “Close to Home” shelf tags to highlight locally produced foods. This allows customers to choose Oregon grown or processed products and support our home state economy. Despite the proliferation of various certifications, nothing beats being an informed consumer. Certifications on products can help us make purchasing decisions that align with our values, but they are not a substitute for knowledge. Reading food labels is a great start, and knowing that Certified Organic is a legally enforced standard is very important. Ultimately staying aware and knowledgeable about your food is the most important way to be a healthy and responsible consumer.